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Common dodder covers some host plants

On a walk in the Smoky Mountains last summer, we came across a patch of plants that were covered with what looked like yellow Silly String. It was crazy looking! Strands and strands of fine golden strings were draped over and twining around these poor plants.

Common dodder (Cuscuta gronovii) covers some host plants

Common dodder (Cuscuta gronovii)
covers some host plants

Eric knew what it was right away – dodder; a parasitic vining plant also known as scaldweed, strangleweed, devil’s hair, devil’s guts, love vine, and many other equally descriptive common names.

Dodder (Cuscuta spp.) is an annual plant that is effectively leafless and has contact with the soil only as a young seedling. These plants do not manufacture chlorophyll so they are unable to produce their own food through photosynthesis like green plants can. With the exception of the first few days after germination, dodder is entirely dependent on a host plant for the water and nutrients needed to complete its life cycle – an obligate parasite!

Flowers of common dodder

Flower clusters of common dodder

Despite its lack of chlorophyll, dodder IS a flowering plant and produces many clusters of tiny flowers from June through the fall. If pollinated, the flowers will form seeds just like other like flowering plants. In fact over the course of a season, a single dodder plant is capable of producing thousands of seeds!

Dodder seeds typically germinate in the spring and the seedlings, which have thin, vine-like stems, grow upwards and twine around the first solid object they encounter. Since the dodder seeds generally drop to the ground under the mother plant, the seedlings normally germinate among suitable host plants. For the first few days of growth, the dodder seedlings survive on nutrients stored in the seed. If they do not contact a host plant within 5-10 days, they will run out of food and die.

Dodder stem produces haustoria which penetrate the host stem

Dodder stems produce haustoria
which penetrate the host stem

Once dodder contacts a host plant, it quickly twines around the stem of the plant and small structures called haustoria are produced along the dodder stem. The haustoria penetrate the vascular system of the host and begin to extract carbohydrates and water from its stem. At this point, the dodder plant is completely supported nutritionally by the host. The original (seedling) stem of the dodder eventually withers and this parasitic plant loses contact with the soil.

Once attached to a host plant, dodder continues to grow and reattach in multiple places along the host stem. Individual plants will often spread to nearby host plants creating a mass of stringy orange stems which can cover large areas. This is what we came across on our hike in the Smokies.

A tangle of dodder stems intertwine to form a stringy mat.

Many dodder plants intertwine to
form a tangle of stringy stems.

Parasitic organisms rarely kill their hosts since they rely on them for sustenance. Dodder is no exception and, though they may weaken and stunt the growth of the host plants, they generally do not kill established plants. However, if they attach to seedling plants, they can seriously weaken them and may end up killing these young plants.

If it becomes established in agricultural fields, dodder can cause a significant reduction in crop yield. Alfalfa and sugarbeets are common host plants for some species of this parasitic plant. It can also infest ornamental plants including many perennials and annuals. Japanese dodder (Cuscuta japonica) often parasitizes trees and shrubs, including many types of fruit trees.

Seed capsules of common dodder contain up to 4 seeds each.

Seed capsules of common dodder
contain up to 4 seeds each.

This is one unusual plant!

It can become a serious garden pest and unfortunately it is usually difficult to control. If you pull the stems off the host plant, any haustoria that remain embedded in the host stem will resprout and continue to parasitize the plant. If it is allowed to set seed, thousands of seeds can drop to the ground!

A pre-emergence herbicide can prevent the germination of dodder seeds but these seeds have a hard seed coat and have been found to remain viable in the ground for more that 20 years! Yikes!

One recommendation for control of dodder in the garden is to completely remove all the host plants and replace them with a non-host species. Thus any dodder seedlings that germinate will not find a suitable host and will die off.

If you find this crazy parasite in your gardens, I hope you are able to win the battle against it!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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These days everyone is concerned about proper nutrition and what we put into our bodies; but what about our turfgrass and the plants we grow? How do we take care of their nutritional needs?

Good rich soil provides the perfect growing environment for your plants

Good rich soil provides the perfect
growing environment for plants

Soil is obviously very important to plant growth. It not only provides a physical medium in which your plants grow, it is also a reservoir of nutrients, air, and water – three requirements for plant growth.

Most of the nutrients needed for the growth and development of plants are absorbed from the soil by the roots. Over the seasons, these soil nutrients become depleted and must be replenished or plant health will decline.

Because the makeup of the soil is so important to the health and well-being of your plants, it should become very important to you as a gardener.

Awareness of the properties of your garden soil will allow you to adapt your cultural practices so your soil environment will be most conducive to healthy plant growth, whether it be a flower garden, vegetable garden, or your lawn. The nutrients that will give you a thick, lush, and green lawn are very different than the nutrients required to have a thriving and productive vegetable garden.

Understanding Plant Nutrients

There are 17 chemical elements known to be essential for plant growth, flowering, and fruiting.

Primary macronutrients

Maintaining a lush green lawn requires more nitrogen and correct pH.

Maintaining a lush green lawn
requires more nitrogen
and correct pH

The primary macronutrients, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), are used in the largest amounts by plants and are thus prone to deficiency in soils. These nutrients are the primary ingredients in most garden fertilizers and the percentages of each are prominently displayed on the bag as the N-P-K numbers. These percentages are always presented in the same order – nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium.

Nitrogen is required for healthy vegetative growth (leaves and stems) and is especially important in young plants. High levels promote dark green leafy growth but not fruits and flowers. Thus a fertilizer higher in nitrogen is great for lawns and leafy vegetables but disastrous when you are trying to grow tomatoes!

Phosphorus is important in all functions of plant growth but especially for root development and growth, and in the production of flowers, fruits, and seeds. Starter fertilizers, which can be used when transplanting trees, shrubs, and perennials, are much higher in phosphorus than nitrogen and potassium. They stimulate root growth and help avoid transplant shock. “Bloom booster” fertilizers with 20%-30% phosphorus help promote flower bud formation.

Potassium is important for the overall vigor of plants. It promotes disease resistance, root formation, and cold hardiness. Plants deficient in potassium will have weak roots and stems.

Secondary macronutrients

The secondary macronutrients are calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S). These nutrients are very important to plants but are used in smaller amounts than the three primary macronutrients.

Micronutrients

Micronutrients, also known as trace elements, are not nutrients of lesser importance to plant health but those that are required in minute quantities. With the exception of iron and manganese, micronutrients are seldom deficient in our garden soil, however, some can become unavailable to plants when the soil pH is either too high (alkaline) or too low (acidic). Maintaining your soil pH between 6.0-6.5 will keep these nutrients available to the plants. Some fertilizers are fortified with micronutrients.

What’s in YOUR soil?

A bountiful harvest depends on building and maintaining proper soil nutrients.

A bountiful harvest depends on
providing proper soil nutrients.

So your lawn is thin and patchy or your vegetable garden is not producing like it used to or your plants just aren’t blooming? It may well be your soil. You probably need to add fertilizer, but what kind and how much? Is your soil deficient in nitrogen? Maybe phosphorus? Perhaps the pH is not optimal. How would you know?

The easiest way is to get your soil tested. Sound hard? Not really and the analysis from these tests will allow you to make informed decisions on how to improve the soil environment for your lawn and garden plants. If you choose to have your soil tested professionally, you will not only be provided with a detailed analysis of the soil but you’ll also receive specific recommendations for amendments to improve the pH and also nutrient content if necessary.

Easy Online Soil Testing …

ThinkSoilThe lawn care professionals at MyTurfandGarden.com have developed a unique, on-line and very straightforward way to test your soil. It’s called Think Soil™.

A soil analysis from Think-Soil™ will provide essential information on relative levels of organic matter, pH, lime requirement, cation exchange capacity (CEC), and levels of plant-available nutrients contained in your soil.

Simply go to MyTurfandGarden.com, and click on Soil Testing in the top menu. There you can read all about it and see how easy it is.

Follow the instructions or watch the YouTube video demonstrating how to take a soil sample from your garden or lawn. Within days of placing your order, you’ll receive a pre-addressed envelope, a leak proof zip-lock baggie, and detailed instructions. After you collect your soil sample, just place the baggie with the sample into the pre-paid envelope and give it to your postal carrier. There is no cost for shipping.

Once your soil sample arrives at the lab, the test results will be ready for you to review within 36 hours. You will be notified by e-mail as soon as the test results are available.

Beautiful lawns and gardens require proper nutrition and soil properties

Beautiful lawns and gardens require
good soil with proper nutrients
and amendments

In addition, Think-Soil™ consultants are available toll free to help with any questions about your test results and to offer advice on what’s needed to remediate your soil. For the first time you’ll have the information needed regarding how much product is needed, how best to apply it, and when to do it.

For the month of August, Think-Soil™ has an introductory offer of 50% off all soil tests plus no cost to send your soil sample.

Doing a soil test is one of the best ways to insure that you amend your soil to provide just what your lawn, vegetables, and/or your flowers need to thrive.

Remember next month is Lawn Care Month. September marks the beginning of the best season for most lawn projects. Be ready!

“Don’t Guess – Do the Test!”

Until Next Time – Happy Gardening!

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Grass growing in the daylilies

Grass is nice.

Most homeowners crave a beautifully manicured, lush carpet of turfgrass. The sea of thick, green grass surrounding the Viette home is the envy of visitors who come to wander through the extensive gardens surrounding their home.

Grass has swallowed up these tall bearded iris

Grass has swallowed up these iris

Yes, grass is nice – when it is growing in your lawn. It’s not so nice when it invades your flower beds and mixes in with your perennials, shrubs, and trees.

What do you do then?

One of the worst of the grassy weeds is Bermudagrass; aka. wiregrass. This  warm season, perennial grass is often used as a turfgrass in southern zones because it is tough and durable and quite drought and heat resistant. The problem is that it is a very aggressive grass and can quickly spread into flowerbeds if it is not kept under control. Even if you don’t have a Bermudagrass lawn, this invasive grass can take hold and overrun your gardens.

Other perennial grasses that can infiltrate cultivated areas are Johnsongrass, quackgrass, and perennial ryegrass.

Annual grasses like crabgrass, barnyardgrass, and annual ryegrass can also be major headaches in flower gardens.

How do we get rid of it?

The problem is killing the grass but not the desirable ornamentals. Glyphosate (Roundup) can be used but it is non-selective and you have to be exceedingly careful not to get any spray on your plants. This is difficult to say the least and impossible in cases where the perennials are growing (or trying to grow) through a sea of invading grass.

Sethoxydim selectively targets grass but will not kill broadleaf weeds like this field pennycress.

Sethoxydim selectively targets
grass but will not kill broadleaf
weeds like this field pennycress.

Luckily, there is an answer – a selective herbicide containing the active ingredient sethoxydim. It can be found under the trade names Poast, Segment, and Vantage, among others. Bonide Grass Beater contains sethoxydim and can be found in most full service garden stores.

When applied according to the label instructions, sethoxydim can be sprayed over the top of most non-grass perennials, shrubs, and trees without harming them. It does not kill broadleaf weeds or sedges (sedges are not grasses), but it is ideal for post-emergent control of both annual and perennial grass weeds in your flowerbeds.

An example of how it works …

At Viette’s, we have had some serious problems with grass taking over a few large sections in several of our daylily fields. In the past, we have used glyphosate to spot treat between the rows but this year, grass came up right in the middle of the rows completely surrounding the clumps of daylilies. It was pretty bad! We had to do something or the grass would crowd out the plants.

Grass growing throughout a row of daylilies

Grass growing throughout a row of daylilies

Our field manager and his helper used Segment (13% sethoxydim) to spray these patches of grass in the fields. Because daylilies are listed as tolerant to sethoxydim, they were able to spray right over the daylilies without harming them. This is ideal for post-emergent grass control in our fields.

Three days after spraying, the grass begins to burn back.

Three days after spraying,
the grass begins to burn back.

Three days later

Three days later

The label on this herbicide is extensive and it is important to read and follow the instructions. The label includes a long list of tolerant species of perennials, shrubs, and trees. It can even be used in the vegetable garden when applied according to the label directions.

The results were pretty striking …

14 days later. The green patch on the right was skipped. Since there are no daylilies in this area, glyphosate will be used to kill this grass.

Fourteen days later. The green patch on the right was skipped.
Since there are no daylilies in this area, glyphosate will be used
to kill this grass. The daylilies have grown well – no ill effects!

After 14 days. You can see where Bo edged this 5-row bed. The results are evident!

After 14 days in a different field. You can definitely see where
Bo edged this 5-row bed. The results are evident!

Pretty good results!

It did a pretty good job eliminating the grass!

The daylilies look healthy and are growing well. Luckily I can’t say as much for the grass! Now they can go back through all the fields and spot treat the broadleaf weeds with glyphosate. The fields should be in pretty good shape for the rest of the season!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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Crocus are blooming

Male spring peeper calling; photo credit Jack Ray

Male spring peeper calling;
photo credit: Jack Ray

The other night as I drove past a small pond on my way home, the chirping of the spring peepers was deafening! But I was happy to hear them!

Spring is near!

The peepers are singing, the crocus are blooming, and the daffodils are beginning to open! It seems that spring is slowly creeping into the Shenandoah Valley.

It has definitely been an odd winter this year with some very warm stretches mixed in with a few very cold periods. Some perennials have been fooled and many broke into growth earlier than they should have.

In late January, we received the following question via our Discussion Board:

Hosta damaged from a late freeze can be cut back

Even hosta damaged from a
late freeze can be cut back

I am in Toano, Virginia. We had an unusually warm start to our winter. As a result, my blueberries bloomed, my peonies started to come up as did my daylilies. Some of my daylilies never really went dormant. I covered the daylilies and peonies with pine straw but the daylilies grew almost 6 inches. Now the leaves are burned and chewed. Can I cut the leaves back to the ground now or [should I] leave them alone?

This type of plant damage is not unusual but it normally occurs in the spring when a late freeze damages the tender new spring growth. It’s a bit crazy that there was this much growth during a warm spell in the winter but, as we all know, it was a crazy winter!

Freeze damage on daylilies resembles insect damage.

Freeze damage on daylilies
resembles insect damage.

Here is my response to the question:

Yes it would be fine to cut the damaged foliage of your daylilies back. You can cut them right to the ground. The “chewed” leaves are probably a result of freeze damage rather than damage from a chewing pest. Re-cover the plants with the pine straw after you trim them back.

Pine straw makes a great, long-lasting mulch and the daylilies and peonies will grow right up through it.

Cut Liriope back before growth begins in spring

Cut Liriope back before
growth begins in spring

March is also a good time to trim back the old foliage of some of your evergreen perennials – especially Liriope, Helleborus, and Epimedium. It is so much easier if you do this before the new foliage begins to grow. You can pretty much just gather up the old leaves in a bunch and cut the stems close to the ground. Just be careful that there is no new growth in the way of your shears before you snip!

The old fronds of evergreen ferns should also be cut back now. Last weekend, I trimmed the old foliage from my Dryopteris, cinnamon ferns, ostrich ferns, and Christmas ferns.

Trim back old fern fronds before new growth occurs

Trim back old fern fronds
before new growth occurs

The crowns of these ferns were still firm and tight but the fiddleheads will soon begin to pop up and unfurl. After that, it will become harder to clean up the old foliage without snapping off the tender new fronds.

Ornamental grasses should also be cut back now. This is another group of perennials that is important to cut back before new growth begins. One of the easiest ways to do this is to cinch the old foliage together with twine or a bungee cord and use hedge shears to cut the clump back near the ground. Since it’s already tied up, you can just carry the whole bundle out of the garden. Nice and neat!
Here is a video showing just how easy this method is.

Oh and don’t forget!

Mark pruned this overgrown lilac back to the ground.

Mark pruned this overgrown
lilac back to the ground.

If you have some shrubs that have outgrown their space, now is the time to do any heavy rejuvenation pruning. This can be done with boxwood, holly, yew, rhododendron, azalea, and any others that have dormant buds in the bare wood. Even spring bloomers like overgrown lilac and forsythia can be pruned back hard to rejuvenate them and improve blooming, in addition to getting them back to a manageable size.

Normally, spring blooming shrubs are pruned after they finish blooming but severe pruning, where they are cut back hard (sometimes to the ground) is best done while they are still dormant in late winter or early spring. Of course you will sacrifice the bloom for the season but they should bounce back and bloom even better next spring or maybe the spring after.

Winter is on the way out! It’s time to get back in the garden!

Until next time – Happy Spring!

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Asparagus beetle damage

Asparagus beetles cause mostly cosmetic damage

Asparagus beetles

The other day I had a call from a gardener who was having trouble with asparagus beetles chewing on his asparagus. These beetles don’t usually do a lot of damage but they can make the spears look a bit ragged especially at the tip. If not controlled, however, a heavy infestation of beetles and their larvae can cause defoliation of the asparagus ferns during the summer. This can weaken the plants and reduce spear production the following spring.

Asparagus beetle eggs and stem damage

Asparagus beetle eggs and stem damage

One of the worst parts about having asparagus beetles is that they lay their eggs all over the asparagus stems. These black cigar-shaped eggs are very prominent, sticking out at a right angle up and down the stalk like little prickers. Not very appetizing to say the least! If you have asparagus beetles, you will have the eggs and lots of them! There are two types of asparagus beetles in our area; the common asparagus beetle (Crioceris asparagi) and the spotted asparagus beetle (Crioceris duodecimpunctata).

Common asparagus beetle

Common asparagus beetle

Spotted asparagus beetle

Spotted asparagus beetle

Asparagus beetle eggs stick out from the stem. Damage to the stem from feeding is also evident.

Damage to the stem from feeding

The common asparagus beetle is the most prevalent and unfortunately is the one that does the most damage to the plant. Most of the time, unless there is a heavy infestation, the damage is purely cosmetic. The beetles feed on the stem leaving shallow grooves and scars on the surface. In some cases, the spears can become disfigured, ragged, and bent over like a shepherd’s crook. However, it’s the presence of those little black eggs sticking out all over the spears that is often the most objectionable part of an asparagus beetle invasion! Luckily, they are fairly easy to rub or scrape off when you are preparing the spears for consumption.

Control of Asparagus Beetles

Our asparagus patch is relatively small so I normally just hand pick the beetles and squish them when I find them. If you have a larger bed, this can become an overwhelming job. If you cut the spears when they are still pretty short (about 8″ or so), they normally don’t have much damage and early harvesting has the added benefit of removing any eggs before they have a chance to hatch.

Lady beetle adult

Lady beetle adult

Natural predators in your garden can reduce asparagus beetle eggs and the caterpillar-like larvae. A small parasitic wasp will attack and destroy the eggs. Lady beetles, which are similar in coloration to the spotted asparagus beetle but are round rather than oval in shape, will consume both eggs and larvae of the asparagus beetle. Another trick is to leave a few of the asparagus unharvested. Asparagus beetles are attracted to mature plants with a lot of foliage so these plants can become “trap” plants and the emerging spears are more likely to be left alone. In large plantings or when there are more severe infestations, pesticide applications may be warranted.

Bonide Neem Oil and Pyrethrin are good organic controls for asparagus beetles. These can be used pre-harvest or post-harvest according to the label directions.

For organic control post-harvest only, Bonide Captain Jack’s Deadbug Brew which contains spinosad is a good option.

Chemical insecticides to control asparagus beetles include Bonide Eight (permethrin) and Sevin (carbaryl). Be sure to apply according to the label instructions and ALWAYS follow the pre-harvest interval recommendations.

NEVER spray an insecticide (organic OR chemical) when the bees are active. Just because a pesticide is listed as organic doesn’t mean it isn’t toxic to bees and other pollinators. The best time to spray is in the early morning or in the evening when they are less likely to be collecting nectar. Once the foliage begins to yellow in the fall, cut the plants to the ground and throw the foliage in the trash rather than into the compost pile. Weed and rake up all plant debris around the asparagus bed. This will reduce overwintering sites and help lower populations of these beetles the following spring.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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Daffodils welcome spring

Spring blooming bulbs are the colorful messengers that spring has finally arrived. But for me, it is the wonderful daffodils with their bright yellow “trumpets” that truly signal the coming of the new spring season.

A beautiful small cup daffodil

A beautiful small cup daffodil

The great thing about daffodils is that they are available in a tremendous diversity of colors, forms, and sizes. According to the American Daffodil Society, there are over 25,000 registered cultivars of daffodils! Choosing which bulbs you want to grow may be the hardest part of growing them!

Daffodils are among the easiest of all plants to grow. They are reliable bloomers year after year as long as they are provided with sun, good drainage, and a little food every year. Planting daffodils in the fall is a great project for “little gardeners” because they are not only easy to grow but they make wonderful long-lasting cut flowers for the first colorful bouquets of spring!

But what about after the show is over?

The care you give your daffodils after the flowers fade can have a major impact on the flower show they provide for you the following spring!

Here are some tips …

A dissected amaryllis bulb shows the developing flower bud inside.

A dissected amaryllis bulb shows the
developing flower stem inside.

Feed them!

After your daffodils have finished blooming, fertilize them with Espoma Bulb-tone according to the label directions. The plants need to replenish their energy stores in order to produce new flower buds for next year.

Let the foliage ripen!

You may be tempted to cut the daffodil foliage back after flowering to neaten the garden. Do not succumb to this temptation! It is very important to leave the foliage for at least 6 weeks after they finish blooming. This gives the plant enough time to produce its own food through photosynthesis. The carbohydrates formed through this process will move down to the bulb and provide energy for growth and the production of flower buds for next spring’s beautiful blooms.

This daffodil foliage is ready to remove

This daffodil foliage is ready to remove

 

Never tie or braid the daffodil foliage after blooming because this will interfere with photosynthesis. Often by the time the daffodil foliage begins to fade, other perennials in your garden will have grown up to hide the yellowing foliage. Once the majority of the foliage turns brown, you can carefully pull it off or cut it back.

 

 

What about deadheading?

Seed pods are developing behind the flowers

Seed pods develop behind the flowers

Should you deadhead the faded daffodil blooms or completely remove the old flower stems?

There are different opinions about this. Some say yes, some say no, and some say it doesn’t matter.

Why would you bother to deadhead? Have you ever noticed a large swelling at the top of the stem right behind the spent daffodil flower? This is a seed pod which forms when a daffodil flower has been successfully pollinated. It takes energy to produce these seeds; energy that could be going to the bulb to produce next year’s flower buds.

If you remove the shriveled flower and the seed pod behind it, then all nutrients will be channeled to the bulb and none will be “wasted” on seed production. Wasted – unless you actually want the seeds in order to produce a new hybrid daffodil. Then you would let the seed pods mature, collect the seeds once the seed pod turns brown, and plant them out. However, it usually takes at least 5 years before a seed grown daffodil is old enough to produce a flower!

Daffodil seed pod and withered flower

Daffodil seed pod and withered flower

 

Daffodil seed pod cut open

Daffodil seed pod cut open

bright cheery daffodils

As far as completely removing the flower stem – you could, but what color are the stems? Green!

Green shows the presence of chlorophyll, which means that the stem can also photosynthesize and produce food for the bulb. Hmmmm …

Personally we always leave everything; leaves, stems, and seed pods. Our daffodils bloom beautifully year after year!

Actually, that’s not completely true. Daffodils make wonderful cut flowers, so we always cut a bunch of daffodil bouquets throughout the season to bring some very welcome spring color and fragrance indoors!

Until next time – Happy Spring!

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Euonymus alatus - burning bush

Euonymus is a large genus of plants which includes many species of deciduous and evergreen shrubs, trees, and vines.

Euonymus 'Silver King' is a beautiful variegated evergreen form.

Euonymus ‘Silver King’ is a beautiful variegated evergreen form.

Probably one of the most well-known of these is Euonymus alatus (Winged Euonymus, a.k.a. Burning Bush). This deciduous species is especially popular for its beautiful red fall color. Other popular species are the evergreen forms, Euonymus japonicus, Euonymus kiautschovicus, and the trailing Euonymus fortunei. Many of these evergreen cultivars have attractive variegated foliage.

Because of its diversity, euonymus has many different uses in the landscape. Some varieties are planted as stunning specimen plants, while others are used as an attractive living screen or hedge, and still other varieties create a lovely evergreen ground cover or trailing rock wall cover.

Burning bush in all its glory!

Burning bush in all its glory!

Few shrubs in the landscape provide brilliant fall color as reliably as the “Burning Bush” (E. alatus). When the temperatures begin to drop in the fall, this beautiful shrub transforms from a deep green to a striking fiery red. It’s no wonder these shrubs are so popular in the landscape – many even consider them overused! It should be planted in full sun to achieve the most intense fall color.

Unfortunately, Euonymus alatus and another popular deciduous species, E. europaeus, have escaped into the wild and have become invasive in some areas of the country.

Fruit capsules of E. europaeus will split open to reveal bright red seeds

Fruit capsules of E. europaeus will split open to reveal bright red seeds

The colorful fruit capsules which appear in the fall and add to their beauty in the landscape split open exposing equally colorful seeds. These seeds eventually drop to the ground and can produce hundreds of seedlings under the shrub or are eaten by birds and dispersed to other areas where they can germinate and grow.

The evergreen species, Euonymus japonicus, includes many of the more colorful variegated cultivars. Variegated cultivars should be planted in full sun to light shade for the best color.

Spreading euonymus (E. kiautschovicus) is a beautiful evergreen or semi-evergreen species with glossy dark green leathery leaves that is often grown as a hedge or living screen. ‘Manhattan’ is one of the most popular cultivars. Unfortunately, this species is prone to winter burn in colder zones.

Winter creeper, E. fortunei, is an evergreen species with a trailing habit which, depending on the cultivar, can be used as a ground cover, low shrub, rock wall cover, or as a climbing vine. There are many beautiful variegated cultivars in this species as well.

Finally – Pruning!

I originally began writing about euonymus because a few days ago I received a post on our discussion board about pruning these plants. I got a little off topic! Here is the question:

I have several overgrown Euonymus shrubs that have come into my hydrangea shrubs. I would like to cut the [euonymus] back but how far can I cut them and when is the best time?

How Much?

As far as how much they can be cut; these plants can really be pruned back as hard as you want or need to. Like many shrubs, euonymus has dormant buds in the bare wood and new growth will sprout below the pruning cuts so eventually you will end up with a beautiful, fresh, new but more compact shrub.

When?

The timing for pruning euonymus depends on the type, deciduous or evergreen – hence my discourse on the various species!

Euonymus alatus pruned to tree form.

Euonymus alatus pruned to tree form.

Deciduous euonymus should be pruned in late winter or early spring before they start to leaf out. As I mentioned, these shrubs can be pruned hard if needed, even back to 3″ – 6″ from the ground. They can also be pruned less drastically, removing dead and crossing branches, thinning out about a third of the oldest stems (all the way to the ground), and pruning the remaining stems to create an attractive, natural looking shrub.

These euonymus can also be trained to grow as a small tree by pruning out all but 1-6 main stems and removing any lower branches that develop along these main stems.

The pruning time for evergreen euonymus depends on how hard you need to prune them. If they need to be cut fairly hard to rejuvenate them or to bring them down in size if they have grown too large for your space, this should be done in late winter or early spring while they are still dormant.

If you just need to prune them back to shape them or reduce their size a little, you can prune them in the late spring or early summer when they are growing. It is best to avoid pruning them after the end of July or any new growth will not have time to harden off before winter.

Remember

If you need to do any “severe” pruning of your other shrubs like holly, boxwood, rhododendron, or yew, now (while they are still dormant) is the time to do it.

Be sure to fertilize them with Espoma Holly-tone, Plant-tone, or Tree-tone after you prune!

Until next time – Happy Spring!

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Unripe figs grow along a branch

Figs – I’ve never tried growing them but we get numerous calls and e-mail questions about them from people that do. They seem to be quite popular little fruits to grow. Apparently if your only exposure to figs has been Fig Newtons or dried figs, you have been missing out on a real treat by never trying fresh figs.

Fig trees are often found around old homes in the south where they were widely planted.

Fig trees are often found around
old homes in the south where they
were widely planted.

Figs have been grown since ancient times and are actually one of the oldest cultivated crops. They are very easy to grow and relatively disease and pest free. I’m guessing that these attributes plus the bonus of delicious, sweet fruit are the main attractions for growing them.

Most of the fig questions we get are from people who are growing them in colder areas and are wondering either how to protect them over the winter or how to deal with winter dieback in the spring.

The common fig (Ficus carica) is a semi-tropical plant that is winter hardy without protection only as far north as Zone 8. Many varieties can be grown in colder areas if they are provided with winter protection or if they are grown in pots and brought inside during the winter. ‘Brown Turkey’, ‘Hardy Chicago’, and ‘Celeste’ are a few of the most cold hardy cultivars and these normally do well in Zone 6 and 7 if they are planted in a sheltered location and provided with some type of winter protection once the leaves drop in the fall.

This fig tree growing in the Shenandoah Valley produces fruit in most years without protection because of its sheltered location.

This fig tree growing in the
Shenandoah Valley bears fruit
most years without protection because
of its sheltered location.

Fig trees grow and produce best when they are provided with lots of sun and moist but well-drained soil. Feed them with a good organic fertilizer like Espoma Holly-tone in the spring and fall. Although they are fairly drought tolerant, they should be watered during dry periods in the summer. They really aren’t too fussy. The main thing is to plant them in a protected spot in colder regions.

In general, a southern or western exposure is best. A really good sheltered location would be along a south facing wall because this not only provides a windbreak but it can absorb heat during the day (especially a brick wall) and radiate it back at night protecting the plants from temperature extremes.

Here’s something else to think about when contemplating a good planting spot for figs and other plants that are prone to winter damage:

In winter, a southern exposure usually becomes shaded by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. This shade causes the air temperature to decrease gradually through the afternoon and evening.

In contrast, an area with a southwestern exposure normally receives no afternoon shade and therefore, when the sun sets, the temperature drop is radical and fast. In this situation, winter injury of plants is more likely to occur (especially with evergreens).

These figs will turn soft and brownish when ripe

These figs will turn soft and
brownish purple when ripe

When they are planted outside in Zones 6 and 7, they need to be protected in some way during the winter. One of the best ways to do this is to surround the tree with black roofing paper and carefully pack straw or oak leaves inside around the branches and stems. Use stakes to hold the cylinder of roofing paper in place. The black roofing paper will not only provide a wind screen, but it also absorbs heat from the sun and keeps the fig warmer in the winter. You can also create an enclosure with wire fencing surrounded with burlap but this won’t absorb heat the way the roofing paper does. It may be necessary to tip back some of the branches to make the tree easier to cover and if the fig is very wide, you can carefully draw the branches together with twine before making your enclosure.

The other option for growing figs in areas where they are not winter hardy is to grow them outside in a pot during the summer and move them inside for the winter. In this case, you might want to choose one of the dwarf varieties like ‘Petite Negri’, although ‘Brown Turkey’ and ‘Celeste’ also do well in containers and they normally stay under 10′ tall. Plus, they can always be pruned to keep them at a manageable height.

Always prune to an outward facing bud

Always prune to an outward facing bud

Ideally, figs should be pruned in the late winter when they are dormant. Thinning out the center of the tree to allow more light penetration is important. Remove dead, damaged and diseased branches, crossing branches, weak branches, and those that are growing straight up (water sprouts) on the main branches first then, if necessary, cut back the remaining branches to a height that will allow easy harvest of the fruit.

In colder areas, dieback in the winter is very common and once they break into growth, you may find that more pruning is needed to remove this dead wood. Damaged branches should be pruned back to healthy tissue. You can identify healthy tissue because it will bleed some white sap and the tissue under the bark will be green. Cut the branch just above an outward facing bud.

Ripe figs will be soft and will droop on the branches

Ripe figs will be soft and will
droop on the branches

Figs generally produce fruit on both old wood (an early summer crop) and new wood (a late summer crop). It is important to avoid any major summer pruning as this will limit your late summer fig crop. In colder climates, the early crop may be lost if buds freeze over the winter.

Well, there is your short course on growing figs. It might be a fun project to try next spring. Figs are one of the quickest bearing fruit trees, often producing fruit the very first year after planting.

As for figgy pudding, I’ve had traditional English figgy pudding once. It has a unique flavor to say the least!

Not saying I didn’t enjoy it but I prefer pumpkin pie!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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Native dogwoods have beautiful fall color

The trees are donning their brilliant fall colors, the fields of corn and soybeans are being harvested, the last tomatoes and beans are being picked from the garden – fall is here!

pruning with hand shearsThese beautiful, crisp, cool days of autumn are when we begin to put our gardens to bed for the season. This has many gardeners venturing out with shears in hand to primp and prune and otherwise tidy up in the garden.
While it is a great idea to cut back some of your herbaceous perennials in the fall, you should keep your pruning shears and loppers away from your trees and shrubs for a while yet.

Why? Because pruning stimulates regrowth. Plants respond to pruning with a burst of new growth; the more severe the pruning, the heavier the regrowth. If this growth occurs during the warm days of fall, the tender new shoots that develop will not have time to harden before the winter cold sets in and they become prone to winter damage.

A majestic oak silhouetted against the winter sky

A majestic oak silhouetted
against the winter sky

In general, woody plants should be pruned when they are dormant. This usually means in late fall, winter, or early spring.

How do you know when trees and shrubs are dormant?

It’s easy enough to tell when deciduous trees and shrubs are dormant because they lose their leaves but it’s not as clear cut with evergreens since they keep their leaves through the winter. Luckily, evergreen trees and shrubs normally enter dormancy in the late fall around the same time as deciduous plants.

Not all pruning is done during the dormant period

Pruning quince at the wrong time leads to loss of bloom

Pruning flowering quince at the wrong
time leads to loss of the bloom

Though trees and shrubs can always be pruned when they are dormant, there are good reasons to delay pruning of some species. This is especially true when it comes to the spring flowering trees and shrubs. If you prune these during the dormant period, you will be removing many if not all of the flower buds and this will obviously impact the spring bloom!

Many gardeners are tempted to prune their trees and shrubs in the fall as part of their fall clean-up chores – to tidy up scraggly looking or overgrown plants. Before you cut (even if they are dormant), it is important to think about when they flower and the age of the wood that produces the flowers.

Spring blooming shrubs like rhododendron should be pruned after flowering

Spring blooming shrubs like
rhododendron should be pruned
right after they finish flowering

Generally, trees and shrubs that flower in the spring form their flower buds in the previous season, usually in the late summer or early fall. These plants flower on “old wood” or growth that was produced the summer before. Because the flower buds are already set on the branches, you should try to avoid pruning them in the fall, winter, or spring. Shrubs like azalea, rhododendron, lilac, some hydrangea, forsythia, viburnum, and trees like dogwood, redbud, and crabapple fall into this category.

The best time to prune these spring bloomers is right after they finish blooming. Pruning at this time can range from simple deadheading of spent blooms to heading back branches and thinning to reshape or reduce the size of the plant. Here are some tips for pruning spring blooming shrubs.

American holly tree after severe pruning

American holly after severe pruning

The exception to this rule is if you want to do any heavy pruning. Severe pruning, including rejuvenation pruning where you might cut a shrub down to 12″ to 24″ or lower, should be done when the plant is dormant – usually in March. Obviously you must sacrifice the bloom for that season and possibly the following season as well but in most cases, you will be rewarded with a beautiful “new” shrub. Not all shrubs can be pruned hard like this so be sure to do some research before you start chopping!

Summer flowering trees and shrubs form flower buds on the new growth that is produced in the spring and summer. These are normally pruned in the spring before growth begins. However in colder regions, we often recommend that you delay pruning until the threat of very cold weather is past. This sometimes means pruning after growth has begun but don’t worry, it won’t hurt the plant.

Summer pruning

Summer is a good time to prune certain trees and shrubs if you don’t want to encourage a lot of new growth. As I mentioned earlier, pruning stimulates growth, especially when it is done in the spring. Pruning in summer has a dwarfing effect because growth is slower at this time.

This Kieffer pear was pruned in winter. This resulted in vigorous water sprout growth.

This Kieffer pear was pruned in winter.
This resulted in vigorous water sprout
growth in the spring.

For instance, summer is a great time to prune water sprouts – those vigorous stems that grow straight up parallel to the main stem. Pruning them out in the summer can reduce the number of water sprouts that will develop the following season.

Summer is also a good time to prune trees that are heavy bleeders like maple, birch, and dogwood. It is best to avoid pruning these trees just before and during active growth in the spring because they have a heavy sap flow at this time.

A good pruning book will give you recommendations on the timing and techniques for pruning specific trees and shrubs. A handbook like this is a valuable addition to your gardening library.

For more pruning tips, visit our website.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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Hydrangea macrophylla is blue when grown in acidic soil

Recently, several questions related to pruning different trees and shrubs have come to my inbox or have been posted to our Discussion Board. One of these questions was regarding Endless Summer hydrangea.

I have 7 Endless Summer Hydrangeas that did not bloom at all this year. In previous years, I had tons of blooms, so I did something wrong when I pruned them. I can’t remember what time of year it was the last time I pruned them, but I have not touched them at all this year. They are lush and green and growing, but no flowers. When should I prune them to ensure flowers next spring and summer? I live in Southern NH, about 50 miles north of Boston.”

Lacecaps are beautiful in summer as long as the flower buds survive the winter.

Lacecaps are beautiful as long as
the flower buds survive the winter.

Hydrangea macrophylla, which includes the mophead and lacecap hydrangeas, normally blooms on “old wood”; that is, growth that was produced in the previous season. At the northern edge of their hardiness range, the flower buds of these hydrangeas, which are formed in August and September, are sometimes damaged or killed during severe winters. This means few or no blooms the following season. This happened to my lacecaps this year. In addition, if these shrubs are pruned at the wrong time (in the fall or spring), all those flower buds will be removed and oops – again, no flowers!

The Endless Summer Series is a unique group of Hydrangea macrophylla that blooms on both old wood and new wood. How cool is that? They are also hardier than lacecaps and other mopheads, surviving and blooming even as far north as Zone 4!

Endless Summer flowers are pink in less acidic soils

Endless Summer flowers are pink
in soils that have a higher pH.

If the flower buds that are produced in the fall are killed during a severe winter, no problem! These Endless Summer hydrangeas will still bloom later in the summer, since they readily produce flower buds on the current season’s growth. Because of this trait, they normally flower reliably every year regardless of winter severity.

Then what is happening with these seven Endless Summer hydrangeas?
Why didn’t they bloom?

That’s a good question but I suspect that it is not an issue of improper pruning. Regardless of how you prune these shrubs (unless you keep whacking back the new growth all summer), you should still get at least some summer blooms as long as they are healthy, get enough sun, and are fed and watered properly.

Beautiful, healthy green growth but no flowers.

Beautiful, healthy green growth
but no flowers.

The problem here is more likely to be related to nutrition. Since these shrubs have lush leafy growth, it seems that they are healthy and growing well – perhaps too well. If a flowering plant receives too much nitrogen, it will grow like gangbusters and “forget about” producing flowers. This is what you want for your grass – not your flowering plants.

In fact, this is sometimes what happens when flowering trees and shrubs are planted in the lawn rather than in designated flowerbeds. Your lawn is fertilized with a high nitrogen fertilizer so it grows lush and green but guess what? If your flowering plants are growing in the lawn, they are getting the same high nitrogen food. What’s their response? Grow lots of foliage and no flowers! The nutrient responsible for flower bud production is phosphorus, an element that has recently been removed from most lawn fertilizers.

I have no idea if this is the situation for these particular Endless Summer hydrangeas, but regardless of where they are growing, these shrubs may just need a shot of phosphorus in order to initiate flower bud production. A bloom booster fertilizer or Espoma Triple Super Phosphate (0-45-0) might do the trick. I suggested that she feed them with a good quality organic fertilizer such as Espoma Holly-tone plus an application of Super Phosphate according to the label directions. Hopefully, this will help and her Endless Summer hydrangeas will bloom next season.

So what about pruning?

How and when DO you prune Endless Summer hydrangeas?
The best time to do any structural pruning is just after they finish their initial bloom in early summer.

Dead stems should be cut back to live wood with healthy buds.

Dead stems should be cut back to
live green wood with healthy buds.

In the spring once the new leaves have fully expanded, any branch tips that were killed over the winter should be pruned back to live wood. In more northern areas, this may mean more extensive pruning and the loss of the early bloom.

When the first blooms fade, do any necessary pruning to reshape or reduce their size or just deadhead the flowers. This pruning will stimulate new growth and the formation of flower buds for the summer rebloom. Deadhead the flowers throughout the summer to encourage the production of additional blooms. You can even cut flowering stems for indoor arrangements and this will stimulate the production of more flowers!

All pruning of Hydrangea macrophylla, including the Endless Summer varieties,  should be completed by the end of July because after that, in August and September, the flower buds for the next season’s early bloom will be forming.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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